Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; the three days in which I play rugby and they remain the same whether I’m playing in New Zealand or the UK, so what’s the difference? Well, more than anything else it’s how rugby is entrenched in everyday life out here. Take the British football culture, put it on a course of steroids and you’d be half way there.
It dominates the TV screens and between highlights shows, live matches or players appearing in adverts, you won’t go long without some reference to rugby. It fills headlines in papers both front and back and if many had their way it would dominate the debates of parliament such is the gravitas of the sport. On Sunday I read an article from the kiwi version of the Sunday Times regarding concussion in rugby. It stated that this is no longer a matter for world rugby to deal with but instead the Prime Minister of New Zealand himself should deal with it. On Friday I walked into the bank to see every member of staff wearing a Crusaders jersey, the Crusaders were playing that night and apparently that’s just what they do on game day. It’s drip-fed into everyone’s daily routines whether they like it or not.
Their unwavering passion for rugby was brilliantly apparent on Saturday when we had a prop drop out last minute. Staring down the barrel of forfeiting the game for not having a full front row, up steps an unlikely hero. Forty-eight years old, retired from the game for the past five years and with no intentions other than to watch his old club play, Marty Mason literally blew the cobwebs off his boots, threw on some kit and took the field without a second thought. No one had asked him to do it, but when he heard his old (or should I now say current) club where short a prop, he didn’t hesitate. Whilst I’m sure he was slightly regretting it Sunday morning when he woke up to the familiar aches and pains that come as part and parcel with playing a collision sport, it epitomizes what rugby means to people in New Zealand.
There are a number of reason I wanted to experience rugby in the land of the long white cloud, but to come to a place where the game that I hold in such high regard is appreciated to the same level has got to be top of the list. (Credit where credit is due, for someone twice my age, Marty put in a great eighty-minute shift and I’d wager he was a pretty handy player in his younger days).
As I mentioned, Saturday was our first game and my first chance to play competitive rugby. Although we ended up on the wrong side of the score line (25-5 loss) I thoroughly enjoyed my first outing as a Harlequin. It’s a cliché but the game was far more competitive than the score line suggest and considering this was our first match after only a couple of weeks training together there are a lot of positives to take from it. The rugby itself is, as expected, a slightly different style to that of National One and the influence of the Polynesians is abundant; big hits, high shots and offloads galore. Three yellow cards for high tackles suggest the newly enforced laws surrounding the tackle zone will take some getting used to. Thankfully I managed to keep my head on my shoulders and for the most part avoid getting hit.
One thing I quickly learnt was to ALWAYS expect the offload. Five minutes into the game our outside centre, who was playing Super Rugby last season, carried the ball into three opposing players, I wrongly presumed that there would be a breakdown and as I prepared to hit the ruck saw the ball flying past my head as he had somehow managed to pass out of contact. Thankfully I didn’t make this mistake again and later that half it paid off, having crashed through a few players, his offload allowed me to sneak over in the corner for a try on debut.
Whilst our first game didn’t go entirely to plan, there is some serious talent in our squad and I fully expect as the season progresses so will our results. As for myself, hopefully by being surrounded by all things rugby and having plenty of spare time to put in the extras, my game will develop as well.
Next week we play Waitohi (last years finalist) so things certainly aren’t going to be getting any easier.